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Tom Smart, Deseret News
BYU longtime track and cross country coach Ed Eyestone, shown here in a 2013 file photo, is leading his men's cross country team into the NCAA championships this Saturday.

Ed Eyestone, the head coach of BYU’s powerhouse cross-country team, didn’t have much hope for another stellar season when the men's team gathered for the first time late last summer.

Having lost more than half of last year’s squad to injury or graduation, he thought this was a rebuilding year. That much seemed to be confirmed in summer camp when he put his runners through a track workout consisting of 10 x 1,000 meters. After only a few reps, he turned to his assistant and said, “Remind me how good these guys are. I’m not seeing it.”

Eyestone says now, “It was a case of, oh, no, this could be a long year; this is going to be a challenge. It was disconcerting."

He is as surprised as anyone by what has happened since then. The Cougars will head to Saturday's NCAA championships in Lexington, Kentucky, ranked fifth in the nation in one poll and sixth in another, albeit without a single star on the team.

“They appreciate that they are the blue collar crew,” says the coach. “They didn’t have big expectations coming in. Nobody did.”

After watching his team for a couple of meets, Eyestone began to see potential. He told one pollster he thought the team might be able to crack the top 10. “If you get in the top 10 this year, you should be Coach of the Year,” he replied.

Eyestone, the former two-time Olympic marathoner, has demonstrated a certain knack for developing distance runners. In the last four years the Cougars have finished fourth, sixth, fourth and 16th, respectively, in the NCAA Cross Country Championships. They have qualified for the national championships 17 consecutive years — third longest run in the nation behind Colorado and Stanford. The Cougars blue-collar crew kept the streak alive.

“It was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but it has turned into more than that,” says Eyestone. “We’ve had a lot of people step up.”

Only seven athletes can be entered in a race, but Eyestone lists his team as eight strong — Nicholas Montanez, Aaron Fletcher, Dallin Farnsworth, Mitchell Briggs, Connor McMillan, Dallin Taylor, Jonathan Harper and Dylan Shawhan. They include five returned LDS missionaries who hail from Arizona, Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Indiana, Idaho and California.

The team’s top three runners are Fletcher, Farnsworth and McMillan. Montanez and Taylor round out the top five, although now that Harper is recovered from an illness he could challenge for one of those spots.

Eyestone was still trying to figure out what he had with this team early in the season. Montanez, for one, ran “unattached” in the first meet. He ran so well in the B race that Eyestone put him in a BYU uniform and promoted him to his seven-man team. Montanez was BYU’s second finisher in the conference championships.

“He’s been a nice surprise,” says the coach.

Eyestone asks his teams to set goals each year. At the first team meeting his runners set a relatively modest goal of qualifying for the NCAA championships. Days later they upgraded it to reaching the top 10 in the rankings. They climbed to as high as No. 3 recently, but somehow dropped a couple of spots after a third-place finish in the regional championships.

“It’s silly because the regional meet is like a preliminary heat (for nationals),” says Eyestone. “You run fast enough to advance, but no harder so you can be rested for nationals.” In fact, Harper sat out that race because of an illness, and Taylor didn’t finish the race because he stepped on a sharp rock during the race and had to pull out.

This season the surprising Cougars finished first in the Autumn Classic in Provo, first in the West Coast Conference Preview in Spokane, third in the Washington Invitational in Seattle, second in the Wisconsin Invitational and first in the WCC championships. Farnsworth and Fletcher finished 1-2 in the first two meets.

The Cougars were so dominant in the conference meet that all seven of their runners crossed the finish line before any runners from runnerup Portland finished. Portland finished third in last year’s NCAA meet. The Cougars scored 17 points — just two shy of a perfect score — taking seven of the top eight places.

“This team has really progressed,” says Eyestone. “They all come together for big meets."

He hopes that’s the case again on Saturday in Lexington.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com